Crisis highlights CSIRO bushfire research and response

Australia’s summer bushfire emergency – described as both unprecedented and indicative of the effects of climate change – has also focused attention on the contribution of public science organisations such as CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

Both organisations formed part of a bushfire science roundtable convened by Science Minister Karen Andrews earlier this month that brought together top scientists and experts from across government laboratories and research agencies.

CSIRO will now coordinate several new initiatives as part of the Federal Government response to the bushfire emergency and recovery. The development marks a big turnaround for CSIRO’s bushfire research which was subject to job losses in 2014 as a result of funding cuts from the then newly elected Coalition.

Initial response

“Senior management’s initial response – in terms of providing information, advice and support to the CSIRO workforce – should be commended,” Staff Association Secretary Sam Popovski said.

“CSIRO laboratories are located right around Australia and many staff are involved in local community organisations. Staff active as emergency response volunteers have been encouraged to access relevant leave entitlements to support their efforts.”

“Members of the Executive Team have been diligent in monitoring the safety of CSIRO people and managing the risk assessment to science infrastructure. Health and safety advice on air quality and the effects of bushfire smoke have also been made available to CSIRO staff.”

“The CSIRO Staff Association recognises all members who have done it tough and lent a helping hand this summer, where many Australians have experienced not only devasting bushfires, but also extreme drought and most recently, damaging hailstorms,” Mr Popovski said.

Research effort

The widespread damage from the current fire season has served to focus attention on CSIRO bushfire research and the role it plays in both supporting and educating state and territory fire authorises.

CSIRO scientists work developing tools to predict bushfire behaviour, advance fire spread prediction as well as bushfire suppression systems. CSIRO also provides training to state agencies in fire behaviour and prediction and the use of purpose-built facilities to construct models to better understand and manage fires under changing climate conditions.

Research results have been used to respond to bushfire threat through weather warnings, fire location information, fire-fighter training, predicting fire behaviour and informing fire safety policy.

Government roundtable

The critical importance of research in supporting preparation, management and response to the threat of bushfires was a key theme of a bushfire science roundtable convened by Minister Andrews.

In response to the Minister’s request for improved scientific communications regarding bushfires; CSIRO will develop a factual document, in consultation with the roundtable, ultimately accessible to the public and designed to improve understanding of contributing factors to bushfires.

CSIRO will also lead identification of opportunities for the public to engage in citizen science projects that will help with response, recovery and resilience efforts. CSIRO, in consultation with the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, will convene several industry sessions aimed at improving communication and collaboration among businesses, volunteers, first responder organisations and different levels of government.

Previous cuts

These new projects should mark the beginning of a more positive chapter for Federal Government support of bushfire research in the pubic sector.

In 2014 – as a result of deep funding cuts in the Coalition’s first federal budget after winning government the year earlier – CSIRO lost nearly forty positions in Ecosystem Sciences including Forestry System Sciences; which covered research effort into forest management and bushfire dynamics.

“The 2014 era cuts to CSIRO bushfire research came within five years of Victoria’s Black Saturday fires. The Federal Government has a responsibility to ensure that CSIRO’s bushfire research capability is maintained and enhanced through the provision of ongoing and secure funding, now and into the future,” Mr Popovski said.

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